Most people have some idea of their rights if law enforcement officers show up at their door. They know that officers typically need a resident’s permission to come in and look around unless they have a search warrant that details where they can search and what items they can take. Those are their rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from unlawful search and seizure.
These rights get a little fuzzier when it comes to officers’ right to search a vehicle and confiscate items believed to be evidence of a crime. That’s largely because there were no motor vehicles when the Constitution and those initial amendments were written.
Why searching a vehicle is different than searching a property
The U.S. Supreme Court has filled in the gaps over the years in various rulings. For example, about a century ago, it ruled that officers don’t need a search warrant to look around inside a vehicle as long as they have a valid reason to pull over the driver, like “reasonable suspicion” that they’re under the influence.
They must also have “probable cause” to believe there’s evidence of a criminal offense inside. Note that anything “in plain sight” (for example, visible on the seat, dash or floor) typically can be seized.
The logic is two-fold: A person stopped by police could conceivably drive away, so there’s no time to wait for a warrant. Further, people don’t have the same expectation of privacy when they’re driving a vehicle on a public road as they do in a home.
Certainly, an argument can often be made that officers didn’t have sufficient reason to pull over a vehicle. We’ve all heard stories about police stopping drivers for broken taillights or tinted windows and then using that stop to go through the vehicle and find illegal drugs or weapons or other evidence of a crime.
Were the stop and the search reasonable?
It can be difficult to remember — let alone assert – your rights if you’re pulled over by police. It’s also important to assess the situation and not do anything that could make an officer feel unsafe and therefore more likely to use force or arrest you.
However, if you’ve been charged with a crime after having your vehicle stopped and searched, it’s important to determine whether these actions were reasonable. If not, the evidence may not be admissible. By getting experienced legal guidance as soon as possible, you can protect your rights.